Don’t overlook 18th and Vine: Why Kansas City should cherish its jazz district

Tyren Rushing

It was unimaginable to me four months ago that I could fall in love with anything on the Missouri side of Kansas City. I am a Kansan, and a hardcore Kansan at that. I take pride in our sunflowers, I love my Jayhawks, I say “pop,”not “soda” and I absolutely detest Missouri.

Four months ago, I started my internship at the American Jazz Museum and my eyes were opened to the greatness of the most overlooked, underappreciated, severely under-promoted neighborhood in Kansas City, the 18th and Vine District.

It’s amazing that a place so spectacular is such an afterthought in a city constantly struggling for national respect and acclaim. The 18th and Vine District is Kansas City’s ticket to the big leagues of tourism, but it’s treated like a minor leaguer with a bad back.

The names of neighborhoods like Times Square, Navy Pier, The French Quarter and most comparatively, Beale Street, are identified instinctively  with their respective host cities.

What have New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Memphis done better than what Kansas City has done with 18th and Vine to obtain such recognition for those destinations?

One answer is the other cities simply care. Although 18th and Vine is arguably more important to Kansas City’s history than the Plaza and the Power and Light District, the jazz district doesn’t share the limelight.

Go to www.18thandvinedistrict.org/, and you will find a website that is outdated and underfunded, much like the district it represents. Go to www.countryclubplaza.com/, and you will see a sleek, modern site that it is better funded and updated.

It doesn’t stop at the web. When you drive down I-35, there is a barrage of signs boasting about upcoming fashion events taking place on the Plaza, Zona Rosa and P&L. Why couldn’t 18th and Vine be included in this or other joint ventures among the city’s entertainment districts?

A more complex answer is the “dividing line” that Troost Avenue typically represents. Troost has long served as the divider between the haves and have-nots in Kansas City.  Mayor Sly James even referenced it as the “Berlin Wall” in his Town Hall Forum last year on campus.

Unfortunately for 18th and Vine, it lies east of Troost and therefore doesn’t get the shine that Kansas City’s other entertainment districts receive. P&L, the Plaza and Westport are west of Troost and receive plenty of recognition and support. The city sunk $850 million into Power and Light. The Plaza has a televised lighting ceremony, and Westport has become synonymous with drunken fun and good eats more so than any other local destination.

The All-Star Game festivities cast a spotlight on 18th and Vine, but only because the Negro League Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum are housed in the district. Jazz and baseball are two great Kansas City traditions right up there with barbecue and fountains. So why can’t 18th and Vine see this kind of limelight regularly?

It is the most significant historic black neighborhood in Kansas City. During the Jim Crow era of Kansas City history, blacks boycotted shops downtown and began to practice self-sufficiency by shopping primarily at 18th and Vine.  This is the block where the Negro League was founded in 1920, where Prohibition never existed under Thomas Pendergast’s reign over Jackson County  and where Charlie Parker mastered the saxophone.

The abundance of jazz clubs, gambling spots, barbecue joints and shopping once made this area a cultural hub that people from all walks of life would visit, regardless of skin color. The Plaza is praised for pioneering the planned outdoor shopping center, but the fact that it was segregated for more than 40 years is often overlooked.

The legacy of segregation can still be seen in 2012. Neighborhoods west of Troost are mostly white and affluent; neighborhoods east of Troost are predominately black and working class.

The Troost divide causes areas like 18th and Vine to have a negative connotation.

As one who spends five-to-six days each week in the district interning and covering concerts,  I can tell you that 18th and Vine is as about as safe as one can get in the city. There have been more shootings at the Plaza in the last few years.

The people are friendly and diverse in the jazz district and the streets and sidewalks are some of the most well-maintained I’ve seen in Missouri, which is saying a lot.

More importantly, entertainment options are endless.

If you want to eat, the Jukehouse has a great menu. Danny’s Big and Easy brings delightful Cajun cuisine to the Midwest, and the 9th Inning is a state-of-the-art sports bar that serves a mean turkey burger. The legendary Arthur Bryant’s is up the street on the corner of 17th and Brooklyn.

For entertainment, the Blue Room Jazz Club has live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Monday, it features an open jam session.

The Gem Theater hosts a variety of events, including the upcoming Jammin’ at the Gem concert series.

The Jukehouse goes full-scale bar every night and hosts the popular Soul Sessions poetry and music sessions every Monday night.  Ninth Inning hosts a plethora of sporting events with crystal clear HDTV’s throughout the place.  Danny’s Big and Easy also hosts live music and offers full bar service. The area recently hosted the Soul Food Festival, and the Rhythm & Ribs Music Festival is Oct. 13.

But most importantly of all, 18th and Vine is a historical landmark and should be cherished and upheld by city officials. Beale Street in Memphis is comparable in terms of population and musical significance. Beale Street is a full-scale tourist attraction. The FedEx Forum is connected to it, and there’s family and adult entertainment year round. There are millions of both private and corporate dollars in the place to keep it thriving. Kansas City has not shown this support for 18th and Vine, and the city knows it.

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